Imagine a school were spandex count as uniforms, your locker neighbor can see right through her locker’s door and the basketball court regularly bursts into flames because some bloke couldn’t control his fire-spitting eyes. I present to you: the X-Men!
Because everything gets just that little bit more enthralling when you add some high school drama to it, the X-Men are just that: a bunch of superheros in a boarding school. Theirs is a franchise developed in the early sixties by legendary comic book writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics. Their story takes a stand against social injustice, racism and xenophobia. Unlike previous Marvel heros such as Spiderman, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, their superhuman abilities didn’t come to them through some weird radioactive incident or failed experiment. They owe their powers to the mere fact they have precociously evolved and carry a special gene, the so-called “X-gene”. Sounds very cool, and yet they are disadvantaged by mere, not-yet-evolved mortals, held down by a bureaucratic political system and banished to the margins of society. Long story short: unveiling yourself as a mutant will not make you popular.
The effects of the X-gene often start showing around puberty, which means there are a lot of freaked-out teenagers trying to deal with, slash hide, the fact they can fly, read other people’s minds or suddenly grow fangs. I admit to it all being very confusing: dreaming about kissing a boy is one thing, nearly killing him because your lips turn out to have life-sucking powers is another one- and that is where professor Charles Xavier steps in. The man, a powerful telepathic mutant himself, made it his mission to track down as many of these lost souls as possible –using a machine called Cerebro- and unite them at his School for Gifted Youngsters. The goal: to teach them how to control their powers and use it for the better good. This in contrast to his best friend-turned-nemesis Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, who does his very best to rid the world of non-evolved humans with the help of his posse of murderous mutants called The Brotherhood.
The X-Men franchise has appeared in books, TV-shows, films and video games for over five decades and over the years, tens of dozens of characters were added to the original story. Same goes for the many entangled storylines that don’t always make sense, jumping back and forth in time like a yoyo on steroids, killing characters and bringing them back to life, making the mutants walk in and out of parallel universes as often as you and I pop into a supermarket. As for their super confusing love lives… let’s just say it’s complicated!
Anyway, the movies managed to translate some of these storylines into blockbusters. Although some popular characters like Wolverine and Deadpool received their own cycles, I will only discuss the series depicting the X-Men as a whole. Here’s what they’re all about:
A young mutant girl runs away from home after experiencing the aforementioned kissing-boyfriend-an-nearly-killing-him debacle. She hitches a ride with fellow mutant Wolverine, a gruff guy with incredible healing powers, a lot of facial hair and steel coming out of his hands. They get attacked along the way by a member of the Brotherhood trying to recruit them, but are saved by Storm (a mutant who can control the weather) and Cyclops (whose eyes spit laser blasts), two members of the X-Men, who bring the duo to safety at Professor Xavier’s where they act as teachers.
The teenage girl, Rogue, enlists in the school while Wolverine just sneaks around, falling head over heels for another teacher, a telepathic and telekinetic mutant called Jean Grey. Small detail: she’s Cyclops’ girlfriend. In the meantime, Magneto, who has the power to wield steel, and his merry band of evil-doers, including sexy shape-shifter Mystique, set up a machine to turn entire mankind into mutants. If everybody is special, so they argue, no one will be cast out anymore. Sounds great, only the machine’s side effect is melting its subjects into puddles of water within days of the treatment -as anti-mutant politician and guinea pig Senator Kelly experiences. Unaware of this, Magneto plans to expose the entire city of New York at once. It’s up to the X-Men to suit up in spandex and try to stop him. Spoiler alert: they succeed and Magneto ends up imprisoned in a very stylish plastic prison.
Anti-mutants feelings peek as an unknown mutant named Nightcrawler assaults the White House and nearly kills the president. This gives way to the religious fanatic military William Stryker and his special unit to track down and attack carriers of the X-gene everywhere. He captures professor Xavier and Cyclops and raids the school, kidnapping nearly all the students but a small band of escapees: Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm, Iceman, Rogue and Pyro. Wolverine, who suffers from amnesia and has no idea why his skeleton is covered in some sort of supersteel called adamantium, starts having violent nightmares and recalls he was subjected to military experiments year ago.
Turns out Stryker is the mad professor behind it and has invented a special poison that enables him to control mutants. He used it to force Nightcrawler to attack the president and hence discredit all mutants in the eyes of the world. His present plan: force Xavier to uncover every living mutant in the world using Cerebro and subsequently killing them all at once using his formidable telepathic strength. All of this is happening in a secret military base under a lake. The X-Men are coming to the rescue though, as well as a recently escaped Magneto and his sidekick Mystique. They wreak some havoc, kill Stryker and release the captured students, but then Magneto tries to apply Stryker’s plan the other way around by forcing the still brainwashed Xavier to kill all humans instead of mutants. Storm eventually succeeds in freeing the professor, after which the X-Men set off in their X-jet.
Or at least, that’s what they try to do, as the engine is threatened by a nearby dam bursting. Jean Grey uses her telekinetic powers to help the jet escape, but is swallowed by the raging waters while doing so. It seems like the pretty ginger is lost to all and boyfriend Cyclops goes half mad with grief.
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
The X-Men are torn when a medecine is developed that can “cure” mutants from their so-called affliction. Some, like Rogue, are thrilled to finally become normal while others are appalled. Magneto in particular is on the warpath against it and does everything he can to conquer the medicine. Meanwhile, a depressed Scott travels to the lake where Jean died and, to his astonishment, discovers her alive and well. Well, not so well, as she seems to have become another, darker version of herself, the Phoenix, and kills her lover without even flinching. Wolverine and Storm arrive on the premises, but only find an unconscious Phoenix, whom they bring back to the school. Over there, her dark side quickly becomes clear to everybody, but she escapes before anyone can interfere, kills professor Xavier in the process and joins Magneto in his war against humankind.
Together, the villains plan to attack Alcatraz, where the medicine is made. The place becomes the battlefield of a fierce confrontation between X-Men and Brotherhood: during the fight Magneto loses his powers by accidentally taking in the potion and Phoenix goes completely berserk, starting to destroy everything around her with her telepathic powers. In a rare lucid moment, she recognizes Wolverine and begs him to stop her, and the only way he knows how to do that is by killing her. After her death, the X-Men, some of which have lost their powers, return to the school and to their “normal” life. A powerless Magneto is seen playing chess in the park and slowly manages to make a metal piece move, suggesting the medecine is not permanent after all. At the same time, a random man wakes up from a coma and starts showing very professor Xavier-esque behavior, suggesting the dead mutant used his telepathic power to move his soul into another man’s body. Woop woop, prof. X is back!
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
This new cycle explores the events that happened years before the first X-Men movie takes off, starting in a German concentration camp during World War II. A mad professor called Dr. Schmidt conducts cruel experiments on Erik Lensherr, a young mutant who is able to bend metal, and even kills his mother, just to see what kind of reaction this trauma will trigger. Meanwhile, in a stately mansion somewhere in the USA, privileged young Charles Xavier encounters a fellow mutant, a shapeshifter named Raven. The little girl somehow becomes part of the household and they grow up like brother and sister. Flash forward to 1962: Erik is hunting down Schmidt for revenge, while Charles leads a merry college life in England. The latter is approached by CIA-agent Moira MacTaggert to help her take down a band of violent mutants, the Hellfire Club, lead by a certain Sebastian Shaw. Together they set up the “Division X” facility, uniting well-intentioned mutants against Shaw. Raven, now called Mystique, and Magneto are part of it.
Turns out Shaw, who wants to unleash World War III so humanity can destroy itself, is really Dr. Schmidt, a mutant himself, and stays young by absorbing other’s energy. Division X manages to prevent this plan and Magneto kills him, finally taking his revenge, but the extraordinary fight has unveiled the existence of mutants to the world. Sensing the adversity against his kind, a disillusioned and traumatized Magneto forms his own band, including Mystique, and takes off. Charles on the other hand, who got paralyzed during the fight, wants to facilitate peaceful coexistence and founds his eponymous school. The two friends separate and the foundation for all future quarrels has been laid.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Brace yourself for some seriously confusing time traveling, as this film takes place both in 2023 and in 1973.
2023: nearly all mutants are extinct after continuous battling with the so-called Sentinels, special mutant-killing robots. Some survivors, including Magneto, professor Xavier, Wolverine and Pryde are hiding in a ruined Chinese convent. Turns out the Sentinels were created in 1973 by professor Bolivar Trask, but only became powerful enough to actually kill mutants after Mystique’s DNA was added to them. Trask’s team was able to collect it after she killed the professor and got subsequently captured by the government. The murder by her hand also convinced governments worldwide to take action against mutants, so the present-day mutants have a strong interest in preventing the killing back in 1973. They intend to by having Pryde send Wolverine back in time, where he will meet with younger versions of his companions and try to convince Mystique not to kill Trask.
1973: Wolverine doesn’t succeed in convincing Mystique to steer away from her murderous plan, but does prevent the killing itself. Unfortunately, this leads to a very public fight between the mutants, Mystique getting injured while escaping and her DNA getting splattered around the crime scene. Trask happily collects it and perfects his robots. Mystique and a younger Magneto plan to unleash war against humanity on the day the sentinels will be unveiled to the eye of the world, but Xavier rushes in and uses his powers to convince them not to. Magneto disappears and Mystique seems to be intend on keeping peace again.
Flash forward to 2023: Wolverine wakes up at university and appears to be a history teacher now. He encounters many mutants who supposedly lost their lives in the fight against the sentinels, so it appears he succeeded in changing the course of history, all the other oblivious to what just happened. All is well.
After the ending credits though, a new scene unveils how an ancient dark mutant named Apocalypse is awakening somewhere in the desert…
So, who is this Apocalypse chap? He appears to be the world’s first and most powerful mutant and used to rule over ancient Egypt. His reign was ended by a rebellion however, that resulted in him being entombed alive. When he awakens and escapes in 1983, he discovers the world to be ruled by mere mortals, much to his dismay, which of course must be taken care of by killing them all. In order to do so, he recruits mutants like orphaned Ororo Munroe, who will go on to become Storm, and Magneto, who unsuccessfully tried to build a new, peaceful existence in Poland, but had his wife and daughter killed before his eyes by fearful humans. So our friend is back on the warpath, this time teaming up with the most ancient evil power he could find.
At Charles’ school, new student Cyclops is introduced to his future love interest Jean Grey. There’s not much room for romance though, as Apocalypse comes to kidnap the professor because he wants to use him to make the global superpowers launch their entire nuclear arsenals into space at once. In an attempt to stop him, a student accidentally blows up the school, leaving its inhabitants uncovered, which enables young anti-mutant military William Stryker (remember him?) to capture them all. Back in his base, Cyclops and Jean manage to escape and stumble upon one of Stryker’s experiment, “Weapon X”, who turns out to be none other than Wolverine. Of course, none of them know each other by then, and a traumatized and amnesiac Wolverine just goes about wreaking havoc.
Everybody escapes, Wolverine just setting off into the wild, and the X-Men head to Cairo to get their professor back. In the subsequent fight, Ororo and Magneto join the good guys again, Charles battles Apocalypse on a telepathic level and gentle Jean is forced to join the fight and unleash the full strength of her formidable power for the first time in order to help him win. Afterwards, they all return home and Magneto even helps rebuilding the school. He turns down Charles’ offer to stay on as a teacher and disappears again, while Jean, Cyclops and Ororo go on to become the new recruits of the X-Men.